This is the transcript for episode 293 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Katie Cristol and Jack Belcher join the show from Arlington, Virginia, to explain the community's approach to bridging the digital divide. Listen to this episode here.
Katie Cristol: It just starts with the idea that everyone regardless of whether your work is in technology, paving, or public schools is committed to the notion of helping lift up our neighbors with the assets that they need.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 293 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. It was 2014 when we last spoke with Arlington, Virginia's Jack Belcher about the community's fiber optic network. This week he's back and he's joined by Katie Cristol, County Board Chair. The network has been up and running for several years now providing better connectivity for government facilities and community anchor institutions leasing out dark fiber. And now they've developed a new program to help shrink the digital divide. In this interview Jack and Katie give us details about the Arlington Digital inclusion Initiative including why where and how local government departments are working together. Jack also fills us in on what's next for Connect Arlington and share some lessons learned. Now here's Jack Belcher and Katie Cristol from Arlington Virginia.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. And I'm speaking with Katie Cristol, the Chair of the Arlington County Board in Virginia. Welcome to the show. Thanks so much for having me. And we also have repeat guest Jack Belcher, Arlington County Chief Information Officer. Welcome back, Jack.
Jack Belcher: Thank you for inviting us.
Christopher Mitchell: Well this is a particularly good show we've done a couple of shows recently about digital divide issues, how we can use smart investments to try to make sure everyone gets benefits of the Internet and we're going to be talking about that at the beginning of this show. But first I think, Katie, I'd like to ask you to just tell us a little bit about what the Connect Arlington is please.
Katie Cristol: Connect Arlington is a fiber optic high speed and dedicated network that we built here in Arlington. It links both our county facilities, like community centers and public safety institutions, as well as the buildings for our Arlington public schools. And the goal of Connect Arlington is to ensure that our governmental and school services and facilities will benefit both today and then increasingly in the long run because we know the demand for digital services and connectivity is only continuing to grow.
Christopher Mitchell: And Jack, I'm curious if you have anything to add on to that.
Jack Belcher: It's really a trademark of Arlington. We have this vision that we don't do the easy. And what this wouldn't have been successful if it wasn't for the elected leadership we have. Basically active a board of directors and said you know does this make sense. And this has been an effort it's been a six year effort to complete and this month in fact we'll be completing the the build out of Connect Arlington and over 93 schools across the county and county buildings, the 250 traffic signals that we manage by this, there's a public safety radio network is being carried over that. It's been a real success and again it's a tribute to just the kind of world to make it happen.
Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you both coming on the show and also that having focused on local government policies for ten years I have to say that that kind of progress in Arlington's made is remarkable and does show really good leadership.
Katie Cristol: Well thank you so much. I really appreciate you're saying so and you know I know a lot of credit does go to my predecessors on the Arlington County Board including one that just recently retired off the board. And what has been so exciting is to see the fruition of not only that vision for a kind of digital self-reliance right to get to your point but also to start to see some of these applications especially on issues that have to do with equity which I know is what brings us to the conversation today.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes and we'll dive right into that. I would be remiss if I didn't say for people who are unfamiliar with the D.C. area that Arlington has a compressed populace county right. It's a part of the metro region of the D.C. area and I think that brings us to Arlington Mill. Katie, why don't you tell us what's happening and how you're using Connect Arlington in this specific way to try and make sure everyone can access the Internet.
Katie Cristol: Absolutely so. Arlington Mill is both a community center and it's a public private partnership that includes housing which is -- was developed and is now operated by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing. There is 102 committed affordable units they're renting at 40, 50, and 60 percent of our area's median income. And a lot of kids, a lot of kids in our public schools. So Arlington Mill is a terrific location for us to help pilot this idea. This proof of concept about bridging -- bridging the digital divide because it is sharing space effectively with the community center which already has the necessary infrastructure needed for the dark fiber connection. So a lot of things have really come together to make Arlington Mill and the families that live there a great place to start in our efforts to bridge the digital divide.
Christopher Mitchell: Jack, let me let me ask you to fill in a little bit of some technical details and that's because this is part of a larger investment you already have the fiber there but what are -- What's happening technically to be able to bring access to these communities?
Jack Belcher: We were fortunate because we had a community center there for us and we extended communications, government communications, wireless and cell phone. We recognize right off the bat that we didn't have the wireless connectivity we needed here primarily for our first responders. If there was a 911 call we had to go into that facility they didn't have coverage. And we found it wasn't only they didn't have coverage of the public safety radio network that people who had wireless plans with, say, Verizon and AT&T couldn't get connectivity. So what we did -- we addressed it from the perspective of the public safety side and we put in a distributed antenna system in there. And so what that allowed us to do is to provide direct coverage for the 911 calls that would come in. So when somebody gets a call and they go to a building they can't get in. They can't get communications. Time is really important. So by putting this in it'll lay the foundation. So what we did since we had that ability to put in the distributed antenna system, we put in what was called a neutral host capability. And so what we did is we had slots in a service that powered the rest of the building and so we could do is put Verizon or AT&T and such. So the foundation was laid and so when this initiative came up with the idea of -- this idea of how do we extend connectivity to those who may not have that access. We had the foundation on the ground and ready to go and we just laid on top of that with our partners that we brought in to make it happen. So it was quite a success. That's why this is a really remarkable project.
Christopher Mitchell: So let me go back to Katie, and ask you if I'm a family that's moving into this area how -- how does it change if I was moving into a different area that did not have these services that you are making available?
Katie Cristol: Our families who live in Arlington residences and other community affordable units around the county do tend to be modest to lower income. Again the units themselves rent at 40 or 50 or 60 percent of area median income. And many of those families actually also receive housing grants. So they are folks who are on the lower end of the economic spectrum. And we know that data on internet is expensive. We have some data actually about Arlington Mill residences now that suggest you know the houses that are able to pay for data and Internet their plans typically cost 45 to 70 dollars a month. So for a family moving into the area especially a low income family moving into the area it can be really hard to be connected. It might mean a tradeoff between that and other essential services. So this really is one of the areas of equity or lack there of it for the 21st century. And so that's why it's so important to be able to offer this option to families.
Christopher Mitchell: So families that are moving in here then they will have access to a wireless service or service in their home. How exactly does technology work?
Jack Belcher: It comes down to wireless what we've done is we've worked with the people who run that facility. It's called LAPAL or APAH?
Katie Cristol: Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. That's the acronym.
Jack Belcher: I'm sorry I caused that blip in this discussion but no what we did is we extended to partnerships the ability to have to watch that entire facility with wireless as it was talking about it earlier. And now they have they have gigabit access is synchronous in other words whatever you've got coming down is what you have going back up. And normally when you deal with Comcast, Verizon, and there's a degradation in speeds and so it's not synchronous and so but the wireless we really are building true broadband access at a gigabit speed to the -- to all the residents in that facility. The difference is significant when you look at it from a perspective of education. I know the schools of Arlington are moving to a one-to-one learning model where it's more than just providing someone with a tool, a tablet is providing with the learning materials to be able to be able to understand. The cost of living is integral in some part of the county many parts of the county. People have access to high speed Internet access. Just one facility. The schools would offer what they call MiFi Wi-Fi. And it's really a little Wi-Fi device. And they offered it free offer them ability to get access to materials. The problem was that the speed of which that operates is a mere fraction of the speed you get from a commercial Internet access, Katie, is referring to. And so they really. These kids are at a disadvantage in the number of kids in this complex who are relying on it but providing this now it sort of a level playing field and they have no equitable access to anyone else in any other part of the county and I think that's really the critical thing from a case with a K-12 aspect also looks like from a K-to-grave aspect of this having the ability to have that access is so important from health and human services, education standpoint to be able to get medical care find out about where to get a job, so many other things that you have to do in your life. To have that ability in that facility,iIt's just extraordinary. And again as Katie was saying, it just levels the playing field.
Christopher Mitchell: I have never heard that before. Did I hear correctly that you said K-to-gray?
Jack Belcher: K-to-grave.
Christopher Mitchell: That's brilliant. That is really -- that's terrific. I never heard that before and I love that it came from from you Jack. You just have a wonderful way of speaking. I remember that from the last time that we spoke. Katie, let's let's turn to something that as a fellow policy geek I know that you're very interested in, that's how this gets funded. How did you end up pulling this together?
Katie Cristol: Well I think the funding here is actually a really intriguing part of the story and says something about the way we think about connectivity and access in the 21st century as a critical piece of infrastructure in the same way that you know roads and transit for example might be. So Columbia Pike, which is actually my neighborhood and is where Arlington is located, is one of actually the most diverse corridors in America. At one point we were called "the world in a zip code" by the Brookings Institute. And as we have as a county set a plan for the future of Columbia Pike. It's been really important to all of us that we preserve our diversity and we know that it's really important to protect some of our affordability in order to do that. So some years ago the board approved what's called tax increment financing for Columbia Pike and that of course is an instrument we see throughout Arlington and of course throughout the country basically as property tax revenues grow with redevelopment and property appreciation some increment of the additional property tax revenue is set aside and dedicated for a specific purpose and in Columbia Pike is going to be dedicated or it is dedicated to this specific purpose of infrastructure for affordable housing initiative? So when a developer, a market rate developer, comes in there's an expectation that they'll make some contributions to the sidewalks, underground utilities, etc. there where we typically think of as infrastructure and the funding allows us to help along the development of committed affordable housing by alleviating the pressures on the developer, the affordable housing developer, to raise that capital to fund those infrastructure improvements. This is the first time we're using that tax increment financing or TIF money to pay for the infrastructure of internet connectivity of high speed Internet and so that funding is providing a grant. About $95,000 for this initiative. And that's where the money comes from and we think it's kind of a nice signal about what infrastructure means at our current day and age.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes we've seen tax increment financing in some other places as well. We've discussed it on this show previously with Eugene, Oregon, and we've also written about it in Valparaiso, Indiana, as well as several others so I really appreciate the explanations. One of the clearer explanations we've had for it. One other thing that I really want to bug you about Katie was the collaboration because when we were looking into what was happening here, you know, I notice Department of Technology Services, Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. Those are the organizations that have all been involved with Arlington Mills as well as the Partnership for Affordable Housing as urban in the challenges of having so many different groups working together? Now I would just say that we've seen a lot of projects falter because the heads of different departments didn't feel like they had to work together. They didn't feel like there'd be a penalty if they just didn't work well together.
Katie Cristol: Interesting question right that we know is true across policy areas that the challenges of the silos, for example. I think one of the reasons this project was set up for success or actually that this project even germinated or took root initially is that it's true I think across the organization of Arlington County government that there really is a shared commitment to the notions of inclusion, to the notion that, you know, our county should be a place where everyone gets a leg up where everyone is helped along and certainly we're all working to interrupt cycles of intergenerational disadvantage. I don't know that every department of technology services feels that the way Jack and his team do. And I think that's a pretty remarkable thing. So I know when -- when they brought this idea to the county board we were all incredibly enthusiastic about it. And it was -- what was really exciting is that the idea started with this, again, commitment to equity but it came out of the people who had the technical expertise to make it so, you know, it wasn't just a nonprofit advocacy group in the community or just our Human Services Department saying hey we know our families need it. It was our technical people who knew not only that our families needed it but had some idea about how to realize it. And I think that's been so essential. I'm sure Jack could talk a little bit too about the partnership of course there are multiple parties involved here it's a cooperative effort between the county, the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing and then the service providers that will be selected by them. So that is a lot of layers of of government there some of that is a reflection of the sort of climate that we're in. You know we firmly are not a community network provider and so there was a need to bring in a provider as well as a partner in APAH. So you know there are always cuts along the way and challenges along the way. We're fortunate to have a really high capacity partner in the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing that is quite savvy about capital financing development etc. So we're fortunate to draw them. But again I really think in terms of breaking down the silos, it just starts with the idea that everyone regardless of whether your work is in technology paving or public schools is committed to the notion of helping lift up our neighbors with the assets that they need.
Christopher Mitchell: It's an interesting answer that you give that is very honest and I want to see how you react to me putting it in a little bit of a more brutal way. And that's if a community comes to me and says look what we really need to get to this end. And they have departments that aren't used to working together and they have leadership of departments that are more interested in building kingdoms than working together. You can't just sort of find a great mayor or chair of a board that's going to force them to work. It sounds like it's more like you have to get your house in order before you tackle these kinds of projects accurately, you think.
Katie Cristol: I couldn't agree more with that characterization. And you know my background in a lot has been made in Arlington is is an education policy. And so that is so resonant right that it's the kind of great man theory of public policy that is one really talented superintendent or mayor that can make a difference. It just of course you need folks who care the Shared Value of whether it's collaboration or equity or anything else with their technical expertise. One person can never have the technical expertise to identify opportunities and to bring them to fruition. And so if there isn't that shared set of values or mission you are going to have an uphill battle. Absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell: And Jack I'm curious you've been running the department for quite a period of time. Does that resonate with you as well?
Jack Belcher: It's so true what Katie said. The time I've been here, there's never been a time where I haven't gone up to a colleague in another department or to a board member and local officials and said I need your help and they haven't given it and sat down and try to figure out how to make it happen. When you think about what happened at Arlington Mill, you know, we are what we call a Dillon Rule state there are certain things we can do and not do -- Virginia is. One of the things we can't do is we can't offer services on this. Some jurisdictions and some other parts of the country could just come and say OK we are going to provide wireless Internet access to this area to go do it. We're not allowed to do that. So what we can do is we can provide the transit really, tracks to be able to make it happen. But we have to rely on others to actually engage and make it so that we not only reached out to our friends in the schools we reached out to Department of Health and Human Services that we will go to housing people we reached out to the commercial sector. When we said we need help doing this we can't go in and provide services. We have two companies come forward and say, "we'll do it and we'll do it for the common good the public good. And they licensed that fiber to be able to provide that connectivity. We went to university Virginia Tech who is a resident here and we said here's the challenge. We got -- we need to be able to have this access this high speed pipe to the Internet to be able to provide for this. They step forward no questions, they just said that when do we show up and we get them in a room. Talk to you when the idea was get it done and you know it's still a work in progress. We've got to demonstrate this is a pilot effort. It's -- we feel if we can demonstrate value here it can be extended to other places like that like the one at Arlington Mill for affordable housing. And so we're starting that process but it's been a success because of the sort of a commitment to make it happen. I think that's the that's from the talented so unique.
Christopher Mitchell: As we're heading toward wrapping up I want to just quickly catch people up because in episode 97 when you were last on the show, Jack, you gave us a lot of details about the approach that you were using -- getting four conduits in the ground, talking about how you'd worked with Dominion Energy. It's a high level of detail from that discussion. And I think people will be curious, you know, in part because of this Dillon Rules limitation. Let's say that you're more challenged in terms of getting economic development results from the network. And so I'm curious if you have any lessons learned that you can share with us.
Jack Belcher: Certainly. Again it's been a success. As I said the week will we'll have completed the build out of the network for all our Public Safety, County buildings, school buildings, and such all our traffic signals. So the success is there the cost avoidance is significant. If we had relied on an institutional network that we got through a cable television franchise with Comcast and Comcast no longer wanted to provide that they give us an estimate the cost to be able to provide that connectivity going forward. That was in 2013 and the cost is around $8 million a year. The county because we were building this network avoided those cost. That is significant. And think about five years now the cost had been avoided. Is it a success? yes. What we did at the same time we did it and you're right we had four conduits on the ground. We laid ten miles of fiber to our live and corridor from Rosalind to Courthouse to Boston to Columbia Pike and then down in Crystal City and across the paddock across Fort Myer to the Pentagon. And we wanted to make that a a source of economic development. Could they use that? Could it inspire innovation? and we've had challenges and the challenges have been just the idea that we are a government and we operate successfully for many years and we would deal with a brand new technology that has all kinds of nuances related to it. And so looking at a fiber optic line as say we look at a gas line going to a house just doesn't fit. And so we have to rethink how we deal with those types of challenges. And so what we're doing right now is taking a step back. We've got ten miles on the ground of 864 strands of dark fiber significant investment going through our urban corridor. How do we inspire more innovation. One of things we're thinking about is what's the role of government in government. Make this available as a platform for innovation and not just a platform that we have restrictions around. But there's a thought about permission of access to innovation but that I mean we tend to put a lot of restrictions and guidelines and what people can do with things. And when you think about how the Internet was created it was a research network that then morphed into a a commercial network that allowed you to buy goods online and do other things. It was a development and I think we were at that stage now with this network we've laid this fiber optic network is where we go with it? And so tonight in fact we're beginning a series of discussions with a management committee that's been formed -- with the committee brought together people from diverse interests to look at what we've done would Connect Arlington for economic development purposes that 10 mile stretch what could be possible. And we made an effort not to not to weight the committee to one conclusion and so we have we have a former commissioner from the FCC. He's going to be sitting on it who came out of the Obama administration. And so you know he's he's sort of on that one side of the spectrum. Same time we're bringing somebody in from George Mason University who's actually on the other side of the institution that he believes is very conservative and then he's got people in between who both users, builders, and thought leaders and the ideas to put before them. Here's what we're trying to do. The model we set up isn't -- hasn't really hit that sweet spot yet but how do we get that to get to that sweet spot. But it's more than you know communicating the value of something like this you could talk about speed and speed means a huge amount of things but it's more than that. It's the benefit they're going to get. What does it mean to the business owner who wants to move into a section of Arlington? And what what will this capability give them that they couldn't get somewhere else and in some other community and they goes to every spectrum imaginable from health care to video to research, big data analysis, and such. So that's the challenge we're going on right now and that committee we've put together has a very short timeframe are we talking about six weeks, the number of meetings where they're going to listen to what's possible, see what we've done, and then come back and make a recommendation to the manager and hopefully to the board that says you know we looked at it. We've taken a step back and we think there needs to be the modifications to make this work. So you know I'm very confident we're going to find something, that something is going to come out of this I really that we put in the ground. I have so much value in the future. We just have to find how best to make that happen. And so that's the challenge we have right now.
Christopher Mitchell: Well that's great. I'm curious if you have any final thoughts Katie in terms of this Connect Arlington on the benefits for the community more generally as we wrap up.
Katie Cristol: You don't get that we appreciate the opportunity to be part of our conversation and sharing lessons with other localities is of course a rapidly evolving field not just in terms of the -- the technology that we're working with but also understanding the legal and regulatory landscape so we as Jack mentioned We're always cognizant of the legal landscape in which we operate in as a locality and a Dillon Rules state by either there every locality can sometimes feel like it has idiosyncratic conditions and so this chance to exchange ideas and learn from others. It's really exciting and you know we are we don't know that we've got it all figured out yet but we're really happy to share our work along the way and just grateful to you for helping us chat about it today.
Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you so much for both of you coming on the show and sharing lessons and inspiring others.
Jack Belcher: Thank you.
Katie Cristol: Thank you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Katie Cristol and Jack Belcher discussing Connect Arlington in Virginia and their new digital inclusion initiative. Check out MuniNetworks.org for more stories on the network. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handlers @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts --Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules. podcasts you can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank Arnie Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons, and we also want to thank you for listening to episode 293 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.